Born in the Coal Fields
In 1971, Tennessee’s poor, isolated coalfield communities suffered from a lack of funding for schools and roads. Residents banded together to research the problem. They discovered that absentee land corporations owned a large amount of the counties’ mineral-rich land, but paid no taxes. In 1972, residents won an appeal that required this taxation.
From this victory, SOCM was born. Members chose the name Save Our Cumberland Mountains, or SOCM (pronounced “sock-em”). Democratic and member-driven, SOCM formed to tackle critical problems in their communities.
SOCM vs Strip Mines
Right: SOCM President JW Bradley speaks to miners
Unregulated blasting from strip mines sent the sides of steep mountains onto homes, roads and streams. This jeopardized health, homes, and livelihoods. There also remained insufficient revenue for schools, roads, and other services, as well as a general neglect on the part of county officials.
During our early years, SOCM members endured threats and even violence from those who didn’t want to disrupt the status quo. Despite this, we achieved several major victories, including:
a mineral tax and a severance tax benefiting poor coal communities
a statewide Surface Rights Law requiring surface-owner’s consent before mining
the defeat of dozens of mining permits
worked with allied to enact new federal strip-mining law
Expanding and Evolving
Above: (1974) SOCM members on their way to protest TVA Rate Hike.
As our membership continued to expand, SOCM began to experience growing pains concerning our identity and structure. Should we stay focused on coalfield communities and coal-related issues? Or should we build a strong, empowered membership working on whatever impacts our members? And how could we effective continue our tradition of democratic decision-making with so many members across such a large area?
After a series of leadership retreats, we chose a multi-issue membership focus. This decision paved the way for massive geographic and issue expansion in the following decades.
We created a representative board of directors to coordinate the growing statewide policy focus. We also developed a local chapter model that would emphasize and provide a place for local leadership and issue committees.
During this time, SOCM provided leadership in coalitions, undertaking organizer training and cooperative fundraising. We also continued to lead the focus on coal-related work on a national stage.
During this period of ambitious growth and development, SOCM saw many victories:
We won a precedent-setting ruling on mining in toxic coal seams. We defeated many proposals for toxic and hazardous waste facilities in communities.
We exposed concentrated land ownership and continuing taxation problems in sixteen counties.
We exposed poor state enforcement of strip mine laws, prompting Federal takeover of the coal regulatory program.
We won a new state Surface Rights Law. This allowed reunification of surface and minerals, giving surface owners control over their land.
SOCM Goes Statewide
Left: (1985) JONAH and SOCM members gather.
uring the 90’s and early 2000’s, SOCM continued to expand. New chapters were formed in Bedford and Maury counties around racial injustice and other issues in their communities.
We allied with JONAH, a predominantly African-American community organization in rural West Tennessee. Shortly after, members of SOCM and JONAH in Jackson combined forces to create SOCM’s very first West Tennessee Chapter.
We continued expanding into West Tennessee to fight toxic aerial spraying that was making nearby residents ill. During this time, our anti-racism work also intensified. We hosted several trainings on “dismantling racism” and advocated for the restoration of voter rights to ex-felons who have completed their terms. We forged new alliances on universal health care and immigrant rights.
Throughout this time, SOCM increased its participation in a variety of coalitions across the state and the country. We joined Tennesseans for Fair Taxation coalition in working for structural state tax reform. SOCM worked with other community organizations to form the Southern Organizing Cooperative. The cooperative’s focus was to “improve the art and practice and funding of community organizing in the South.” Along with nine other organization, SOCM also formed the Tennessee Partnership on Organizing and Public Policy.
Battle for Fall Creek Falls
& Standing up to TVA
Right: SOCM hangs a banner over Fall Creek Falls to protest mining in the park.
At the turn of the century, we celebrated a landmark victory. We won our multi-year organizing effort to have 61,000 acres of Fall Creek Falls State Park designated “unsuitable for mining”. This saved Fall Creek Falls as we know it, allowing future generations to enjoy its beauty.
Throughout the early 2000’s, mountaintop removal (MTR) strip mining emerged as a critical issue. Local residents fought new permits that allowed companies to blast the tops off of mountains. SOCM opposed TVA’s plans to lease its mineral land for this purpose. To fight this, SOCM organized a two and a half week Canoe Relay to carry polluted water four hundred miles down the Cumberland River to present the dirty water directly to the Governor.
SOCM became a founding member of the Alliance for Appalachia. We joined other groups in central Appalachia to combat MTR. Together, we fought for economic alternatives and healthy, sustainable communities in the coalfields.
We united with a national network of grassroots organizations to form Citizens Lead on Energy Action Now (CLEAN). They are now known as American Clean Energy Agenda. Together, we developed broader energy policy positions for good jobs and a clean energy future by phasing out coal and other fossil fuels. We also promoted renewable energy, energy efficiency, and green jobs.
In 2008 our members decided that SOCM’s name needed to catch up with the organization’s geographic reach. Save Our Cumberland Mountains grew out of our origins in coalfield communities in the Cumberland Mountains. We needed a name that stayed true to our roots while embracing our commitment to communities across Tennessee. Our new name, Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment, allowed us to keep our acronym, SOCM. It reflected our growth and development through the years, as well as our commitment to justice.
In 2021, 153 boxes of SOCM records were moved to their permanent home at the Archives of Appalachia at East Tennessee State University. Over the next few years, the records will be organized, digitized and reformatted. Once we've completed a final inventory, we'll publish a finding aid online so that people can pinpoint exactly what they want out of the collection.
In the meantime, you can access the records by contacting the Archives of Appalachia at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 423-439-4338.